COME AS YOU ARE

Photo by Robert Forlini

Photo by Robert Forlini

Growing up my parents planned and executed great family summer vacations. They were often two weeks in length which allowed time for a tightly wound family of six to relax and leave their ordinary Illinois lives far behind.

We rode horses twice a day through the Grand Tetons on a dude ranch in Colorado, camped in Yellowstone National Park, relaxed in an remote lodge on Deer Isle, Maine, or stayed on my grandfather’s dairy farm in New Hampshire. Maybe we fought during these trips but I don’t remember that. I remember my mother and father happy and adventurous during these travels. My mother managed to give the four children more space by creating a special section in the way back of the station wagon where we took turns reading comic books. She came up with games like the first person to see a bear gets a lifesaver or counting license plates from other states and endless rounds of car bingo.

My sister Deborah and I just before a ride into the mountains.

My sister Deborah and I just before a ride into the mountains.

We ate in lobster pounds on the Atlantic salt marshes or rustic taverns with churning water wheels in the lobby and fancy dining rooms with cloth napkins stuffed into the water goblet. My father had worked for AAA National and then moved to Allstate to begin their motor club. He understood the meaning of service. If a waiter was serving more than twelve people he or she was being over worked and the clientele was being underserved. He could enter a hotel and within seconds determine if the stay was going to be satisfactory.

“This place is a dump,” he observed seconds after arriving at a northern Michigan summer resort.

It didn’t look like a dump to my eyes but he knew. My father liked American meal plans. He never wanted to camp and on drives between stays he had a knack for finding great out of the way and notable restaurants. If circumstances were out of his control and subpar accommodations were all that was at hand, my father let even strangers feel his pain.

“I’m here at the Midway Motor Inn,” he said into the room phone to the person on the other end. “Not one of your better establishments.”

My mother could be happy with European meal plans and could pack a picnic better that anyone I ever met. On yearly pilgrimages to New Hampshire you could count on three course tailgate picnics that included hot food and table cloths. She could also teach a class in the fine art of packing a suitcase. She was so good she would have a wrinkle free change of clothes for dinner available for the whole family neatly tucked into the top layer of a large suitcase that was situated close to the door. Together, my parents were a family vacation dream team long before the internet. I’m sure problems arose on these trips but I don’t remember any.

I carried this image of what family travel was supposed to look like into adulthood and expected Rob to share this almost utopian vision of summer journeys.

Coming from an Italian American family that considered a trip to the drive-in movie a great escape, leaving has always been hard for Rob.

“Who will watch the house?” he always asks.

He grew up in a neighborhood surrounded by relatives who managed each other’s homes. Which really wasn’t necessary since no one went anywhere. He was eleven years old before his father stopped working long enough to take a vacation. Since vacations were atypical they were rarely planned. His parents liked to get in the car and see where they ended up but they usually made it back home by nightfall.

“Let’s take a ride,” his father would say.

Once they went to Niagara Falls on a whim and found a room for thirteen dollars. They were having so much fun they decided to stay a second night but the room was already booked to someone else the following night. Mario threatened to cut the manager’s head off and put him the wax museum. When that approach failed they spent the night in the car after Mario refused to pay fifteen dollars for a different room in a different motel.

blog2_0004Conversely my parents wouldn’t pull out of the driveway without a reservation.

So our early life together morphed into a more lackadaisical approach to the concept of summer vacation. I wanted to stay in highly-rated turn of the century inns we couldn’t afford and see nature. Rob enjoyed busy tourist attractions where he could take a lot of unflattering pictures of tourists and eat hotdogs. That combination and a deficiency of funds made a long weekend seem like the most we could handle. Additionally when we moved into the lake house Rob felt summer travel was redundant. A suggestion to drive to Long Island and swim in the ocean was often met with a yawn.

         “It’s so far.”

         “Too much traffic.”

        “It’s nice here.”

It is nice here at the lake but as much time as we spend actually relaxing we spend twice that amount tending to all the things this house requires. None of which are terribly restful. It’s also not the ocean.

Going away also means securing the house before our departure James Bond style. This is only limited to locking the doors and windows, putting a pole in the sliding door, setting up light timers, checking the outdoor floodlights, turning on the alarm system and stopping the newspaper delivery.

“Do you think we should stop the mail?” Rob questions me.

“What Mail? We’re leaving on a Friday and returning Sunday.”

“Saturday mail.”

“Nothing is ever in Saturday mail.”

“Thieves don’t care,” he explains. “It’s the same reason you don’t want papers to pile up out front.”

Rob learned you can’t stop mail for less than three days. We usually chance it and go out of town anyway. This is especially humorous since we have never had even an attempted robbery in our neighborhood. On rare nights we forget to lock the basement door.

“The axe murderers overlooked us last night.” I call upstairs in the morning after making my discovery.

“We were lucky this time,” Rob answers back.

When we finally did hit the road Rob hissed “Shhhhhh,” every ten minutes trying to hear upcoming traffic reports on the radio.

Before the invention of the GPS, human navigators reading paper maps probably made fewer errors overall. They can also take in the big picture and get the lay of the land but I have never been a great direction-finder.

“I can’t drive and read the map at the same time!” Rob would often bark as we passed our exit.

One night we had trouble finding our hotel in Pennsylvania and Rob pulled off the road and started ranting while he grabbed the map from me. A small crowd from a nearby bar started to cluster around our car to see what the racket was about. Jack and Quinn crouched down in the back seat begging their father to please stop. It was too late the crowd’s interest was peaked as they watched us drive away, still lost.

Often upon arriving at our hotel room I would step back and sigh. “You sure this was a three star hotel?” As I stared out of our room window at two steaming Nuclear reactors.IMG_0084

“That’s what they promised.”

“Well they can promise anything.”

“Pretend we’re the Simpsons.”

“Or on Three Mile Island.”

I had a plan to stay at the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge one weekend but Rob booked us into the Pilgrim Inn instead. It was nearby and half the cost and in his defense I was spending money we didn’t really have. We had to drive through the industrial area to reach the Pilgrim Inn and the people next to us opened their door strung up beads and smoked pot crossed legged on the sidewalk. The management didn’t have a problem with this.

But even at “okay” places I can find fault. The breakfast isn’t really breakfast but processed white flour products made six months ago. We pick through it and then leave searching for a better meal usually accompanied by loose tea served in individual infusers.

“Isn’t this nicer?” I ask unfolding the cloth napkin. I have ordered a dairy free omelet from free range chicken eggs accompanied with homemade scones.

“I guess,” Rob concedes. “Nicer and more expensive.”

“Just because it’s free doesn’t mean it’s any good.”

“Hmmm,” he says and we leave it at that.

Once we went to the Great Clam Chowder Cook Off in Newport, probably thinking we would be the only people there. Instead it felt like we were at a rock concert minus the music in the broiling hot sun. We inched our way through the crowd.

“I got some,” I thrust small plastic cups of white glop into everyone’s hands.

“It’s too hot,” Jackson moaned touching his burned lips.

“I don’t like clam chowder,” Quinn said after she tasted the first sample.

“I’ll eat yours,” Rob offered.

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Still hungry we stared longingly out at the smart hotel guests sitting on verandas, overlooking the harbor and eating tapas while we trudged back to our car. We sat in traffic to get to our hotel which was far away in the wrong end of town. We had to spread towels across the damp mildewed carpet or sleep with our sneakers on. The pool was filled with water bugs and in the morning the hotel ran out of hot water. Breakfast was A&P donuts and instant coffee. I could picture my father asking, “Did you check the AAA guide before booking?”

After checkout we left the crowds behind and strolled through mansions and gardens of an earlier era. We picked out the room we would like for our own complete with canopied beds and roll top desks. We marveled at the all the places you could get away from one’s family. A billiards room, parlors, private sitting areas and expansive and manicured lawns.

We inched home in Sunday night traffic along I-95 reflecting on how the other half lived. We realized it was a busy world today and you can’t just jump in a car and hope it will all work out just because you have a GPS. We determined to change and the very next trip, to Cooperstown, we instituted with German precision. We read AAA guides, cross checked with Trip Advisor reviews, made reservations, budgeted and planned out stops alongside streams where we picnicked with a homemade spread my mother would be happy to share with us. But we also made a spontaneous side trip to the Catskill Game Farm. I protested that this detour was ruining an otherwise perfectly planned trip.

“I’ve always wanted to return to this place since my first trip as a child,” Rob explained.

I scowled and resisted.

“Come on, it’ll be fun,” he said and went to buy the tickets.blog2_0003

I trudged behind my family staring at my watch while Rob and the kids ran ahead to the tired old animal exhibits. Emaciated animals drooped in the far corner of a plant-less dirt floor surrounded by chain link fencing. A broken contraption called the Relax-A-Lator sat next to the kangaroo exhibit. It egged the pedestrian on with “TRY IT!” I could picture Mario dropping in coins years prior so the whole family could indeed give it a try.assblog2_0001

The Catskill Game Farm closed the following year because of lack of attendance and I could argue that probably is a good thing. But in retrospect I no longer see that road stop or many others like it as a waste of time. Jack and Quinn have experienced what summer vacation might have felt like for their parents and can now choose an organized trip or a spontaneous one or, as is often the case, the best of both.

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LOST AND FOUND

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I lose things. I lose them and then I tend to blame other people. I never blame them to their face I just do it in my mind. I admit it’s a very bad habit especially since the suspected person hasn’t done anything. Most of the time the person never exists.

When I was young my father lost a lot of things too. Except in his case he knew he was the culprit. I remember watching him storm around the house searching madly for something.

“I’m losing my mind!” he would bellow.

“What’s the matter?” I would ask cautiously.

“What’s the matter?” He would sigh and place his hands on his hips. “I’ll tell what’s the matter. I can’t find my god-damned glasses that’s what the matter.”

I would stare at him and twist my mouth.

“What?” he would have asked.

I’d point. “They’re on your head.”

His hand would reach up and drop the glasses down onto his face. Then he would slide them further down his nose and peer out over the top of the frames. “Are these my glasses?”

“You know they are!”

“Well what do you think of that?” He would smile. “And they were here all along?”me and dad_0001

“Yes,” I would have nodded.

The entire family discovered his glasses on his head or resting on the car dashboard or next to the toilet with a magazine. My father “lost” keys, shoes, watches, socks, important papers, you name it, but he always just blamed himself.

I have evolved.  With my inherited bad habit there’s often an unsuspecting culprit.

Several years ago we hired a carpenter from The Pennysaver (again) who showed up while we were both working and was let inside by our son who was home for the weekend. The carpenter was supposed to install a large glass medicine cabinet and repair a wall inside our clothe’s closet. After removing the old cabinet he discovered such a mish mash of beams inside the wall that he backed off of the job.

Jackson called me and explained the problem but I was having none of it.

“Let me speak to him!” I demanded.

The conversation that followed didn’t go well when he reported that he was going to put the old cabinet back and just repair the closet at the original cost for both. He further explained that the closet was a bigger job than he had anticipated. After a lot of back and forth he said, “I am going to finish this wall that I started and you can send me a check for whatever you feel the work deserves!”

“Fine,” I said and we never spoke again.

When I returned home he had done a nice job but I was still a little rattled by his manner. We begrudgingly mailed him a check for the full amount. That would have been the end of it except the following day I went to put fruit in the hand-blown fruit bowl that normally sat in the middle of the dining room table.

“It’s gone,” I declared.

We tried to remember the last time we had used it and who could have had the means to steal the bowl. The logical conclusion was the angry carpenter.

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“He was the only one who had the opportunity,” Rob decided. “He let himself out while Jackson was in his room.”

“He was also unsure what we were going to pay him for the job and he wanted to get something.” I added.

We had a fleeting thought to try to find out where he lived, drive over, and pull a George Costanza.

              “Ah hah!” we would exclaim, as we stormed into his kitchen and pointed at the fancy fruit bowl that his wife was busily arranging with her plastic fruit collection. But of course some sanity returned to us and we resisted. Over the years we would tell the fruit bowl story to anyone who would listen.

Still from Seinfeld

Still from Seinfeld

Then this winter while I was housebound after foot surgery I started to lose things with reckless abandon. I lost my gold watch the same day we had a cleaning woman for the first time. Coincidence? She is a nice, hard working woman who rescued me after a fall and drove me to my doctor’s office, free of charge. Still we couldn’t find the watch and I had never left the house during the period it went missing.

After the emergency trip to the doctor’s office I had returned home without my clown shoe and called the office to explain their error. They denied it but said I could come in for another shoe just the same. How inconvenient.

Early spring arrived and I was able to return to work, remove the boot and eventually start to live a more normal existence. This led to cleaning out my closet where I discovered a long missing Chinese coin that Rob had given me for good luck. I pocketed the coin and carried on. The next day I continued with my cleaning spree and way in the back of a deep cabinet over the refrigerator, under a platter, sat the hand-blown fruit bowl I had written off as stolen over four years ago. It was an odd moment that made us take stock of ourselves. It begged the question: Could we change?

A few weeks later I opened up the sleeper couch in the den and discovered my watch—still ticking. As I strapped it to my wrist I cringed at the thoughts I had harbored against the innocent cleaning woman. Later that week Rob discovered the missing clown shoe inside a laundry basket in the basement. I tried not to think about the words I had spoken about an uncaring medical staff.

These discoveries led to a top to bottom house cleaning that has not ended. Besides accepting personal blame for missing items I was going to combat my inherited forgetfulness with good old-fashioned organization.

With everything back in order I was fully reformed. But in the course of two days I have rapidly regressed. My sister Susan was visiting. Just before an outing I was unable to track down my handbag even after an extensive search. I assumed the worst.

“Someone came through the front door while we were on the lower deck and stole my purse!”

“No?” Rob exclaimed.

“Maybe you should keep the door closed when you’re in the back,” Susan suggested completely unaware of our past transgressions.

Rob called my phone and we discovered the bag and all the contents inside the den. The following day I decided that someone had made off with my laptop from the upper deck. It turned out Quinn had moved it to a chair in the dining room. Okay, so do I need a step program? Accusers Anonymous maybe?

The night before my sister left we went down to the dock to sit for a bit and discovered an empty umbrella stand where a large, nine foot umbrella had once stood.

“Oh my god,” I exclaimed. “Someone stole our umbrella?”

“Are you sure,” Susan asked.

“Well it was right there and now it’s not,” I said, pointing at the hollow stand.

“Wow,” she said.

What else could one say?

“Somebody rowed over here, came on our deck and plucked out the umbrella and rowed away. The nerve—,” I continued until my eye rested on half an umbrella sticking up out of the water a little further down the shore. “Oh,” I added. “I guess the wind did it.”

“Mystery solved,” Susan said.

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Several days later we discovered the umbrella had been retrieved from the muck and returned to our dock by an anonymous and helpful neighbor whose very last intention was to keep it for themselves.  I think I’ll start that chapter of false accusers–if I can find any.